Old School Gaming with Necrotic Gnome

When I was living on Staten Island, a friend of mine from school said he was having a garage sale that weekend. I went there with my mom and saw a boxed game with a red dragon on it. They were asking $1.25 for it so I bought it. This was the second edition of Dungeons and Dragons and it introduced me to the world of role playing games. Today there are a few games that try to recapture the magic of those older RPG’s and the folks over at Necrotic Gnome are trying to do so with Old School Essentials. Recently I had a chance to talk with Gavin and this is what he had to say about Necrotic Gnome.

TR: Please introduce yourself.

G: Hello! I’m Gavin, founder, principle author, layout-guy, and “moss master” at Necrotic Gnome. I’ve been DMing since I got the Mentzer Basic D&D set (the classic “red box”) for Christmas at 8 years old and have been involved with the online old-school gaming scene since 2010, when I started blogging. I’m a UK native, but I’ve been living in Germany (Berlin) since 2009.

TR: Tell us a little about Necrotic Gnome

G: Necrotic Gnome is the publishing imprint that I’ve been cultivating since around 2012 to publish old-school gaming materials of my favored aesthetic. I’d say that consists of two main things really:

  1. A kind of accessible weirdness. I love weird fantasy and imaginative settings, but I want to write material that people can easily slot into their games. (I find that a lot of gaming material that emphasizes the Weird has a tendency to be esoteric or obscure, which I think is off-putting to a lot of gamers.)
  2. A focus on usability. My writing, editing, and layout work are aimed at producing books that are as easy to use at the table as possible. Text is carefully structured for quick parsing during the heat of play and pages are meticulously laid out so as to present all pertinent information in one place, reducing the need for page flipping and cross referencing.

Over the last year, we’ve made the transition from print-on-demand production to deluxe quality hardcover print runs. It’s been a lot of work making that move, but the results are more than worth it! Our new game, Old-School Essentials, will be produced as a deluxe boxed set of 5 hardcover books, with high durability sewn bindings and replete with color art plates — it’s going to be a wondrous thing!

TR: What was your inspiration in creating Old School Essentials?

G: I played Basic D&D as a kid and, though I’ve played lots of different editions of the game since then, I’ve always gravitated back to the beautiful simplicity and openness of the Basic/Expert rules (B/X). The genesis of Old-School Essentials was when I decided it’d be useful to have a set of little rule booklets for my players to use at the table: one with the core rules of the game, one with the spells, and one with the rules for character creation (classes, equipment, etc.). Of course, each of these booklets would consist of information compiled from both the Basic and Expert books (a quirk of this edition is that it’s split into two books — one for character levels 1-3 and one for character levels 4-14).

As I started playing around with the text for these booklets, I noticed something: there’s a foundation of rules in B/X that is actually very generic, once you strip out the fantasy-specific trappings. For example, the basic rules for dungeoneering contain lots of stipulations for how classic fantasy classes (e.g. elves, dwarves, halflings, thieves, etc.) can do their thing in a dungeon. But if you strip that information out, what’s left is a very solid set of dungeoneering rules unrelated to any specific character classes. The obvious next step was to relocate the information that I’d stripped out of the core rules into the descriptions of the individual character classes (so, for example, I placed the rules on dwarves locating traps in the dwarf character class description, rather than as a part of the rules for dungeoneering). Thus was born the idea of a modular game system built on top of B/X. By replacing the character classes or spells or monsters, for example, one can form a game with a very different flavor to the classic fantasy standard, but still using the same core game rules.

Another awesome thing that I discovered as I worked on my booklets was that it’s possible to format things such that all information pertaining to a particular area of the game can be presented on a single book spread (i.e. two pages side by side). This is amazing for reference. In the middle of a game, no one wants to be flipping back and forth in a big rule book, trying to locate different parts of the rules. This way, with each topic presented on a single book spread, it’s super easy to reference the rules for the situation at hand. So, for example, I formatted the rules for combat on a single spread, the rules for dungeoneering, the rules for wilderness exploration, and so on. Likewise, I formatted the description of each character class on a single spread, making it super easy for players to refer to their class’ abilities, all in one place.

I quickly realized that what I would find useful for my games would also be useful to other people. So what started out as an attempt to make some nice booklets for my players to use in our games evolved into the production of a full-scale modular game, based on the streamlined core of the B/X rules.

TR: How many books do you have planned upon initial release?

G: The Old-School Essentials product line will initially consist of eight books:

  • The Core Rules, upon which all the other books are based.
  • A set of four books containing the Classic Fantasy content: Classic Fantasy: Genre Rules, Classic Fantasy: Cleric and Magic-User Spells, Classic Fantasy: Monsters, and Classic Fantasy: Treasures. These four books, together with the Core Rules, form a complete clone of the old 1981 B/X rules.
  • The Classic Fantasy Rules Tome, which compiles the Core Rules plus the four Classic Fantasy books. This is for people who like a complete game in one big book, rather than smaller books for each different type of content.
  • The first two books adding Advanced Fantasy content: Advanced Fantasy: Genre Rules and Advanced Fantasy: Druid and Illusionist Spells. These books add extra, optional content to the game, bringing in material inspired by the 1st edition AD&D rules.

TR: Can you use these rules with any setting or is it just geared towards fantasy?

G: The Core Rules book is pretty genre neutral and can be used as the foundation for games in any kind of genre or setting where monsters, treasures, and the fantastic play a central role. The specific rules for different genres are modular and can be mixed and matched as each group wishes. As mentioned above, the initial release of Old-School Essentials consists of the Core Rules plus a set of 4 rules modules for running games in the Classic Fantasy genre (i.e. classic dungeon- and hex-crawling). We plan to publish further rules modules to expand the game into all sorts of different genres. For example, a Post-Apocalyptic genre rules book is in the works, adding rules for modded vehicles, wasteland survival, and a bunch of Mad Max / Tank Girl / Fallout inspired character classes.

There’s also a license for third party publishers to publish books for use with Old-School Essentials. I’m excited to see what people will come up with!

TR: You brought this project to Kickstarter. What were the results?

G: The Kickstarter was an amazing success, honestly way beyond what I even dreamed possible! Our initial funding goal was €15,000, which we hit in under 2 hours! Our initial set of stretch goals went up to €35,000, which we hit in under 12 hours! After unlocking all planned stretch goals on the first day of the campaign, I had to scramble to come up with some new stretch goals to keep momentum going, being careful to make sure that I didn’t fall into the trap of promising loads of extra content which would then delay the whole project.

We ended up unlocking 11 further stretch goals, all the way up to €120,000 and the campaign ended at €160,000. This was over 1,000% of the original funding goal!

TR: Will you use Kickstarter to back other projects in this line?

G: For sure. There’s clearly a great audience out there for old-school RPGs and Kickstarter is a great way of reaching all those people. We don’t have a concrete date for the next Old-School Essentials Kickstarter, but will launch one at some point to produce an Advanced Fantasy Rules Tome. This book will compile the Core Rules plus all of the Classic Fantasy and Advanced Fantasy material into one mega-tome. (It will likely come in at 600-odd pages!) I just need to finish writing the last two books in the Advanced Fantasy line first: Advanced Fantasy: Monsters and Advanced Fantasy: Treasures. They’re going to be fun books to write!

TR: What do you see for the future of Old School Essentials?

G: I’ve already mentioned some of the plans — the next two books in the Advanced Fantasy line, for example.

I’ll certainly be publishing more rules modules through Necrotic Gnome, but of course I’m limited by the speed at which I can work. So my dream is to see other writers and publishers run with the system, creating their own rules modules that add content for all sorts of different genres.

TR: Would it be possible to get other settings or is this something in the works?

G: I guess I already answered this above, but yeah, the Old-School Essentials Core Rules are carefully designed to serve as a foundation for games in many different fantastic genres and settings.

TR: Other than Old School Essentials what other products do you produce?

G: I’ve published a bunch of different books in the past, under the Necrotic Gnome imprint, but the other big product line that we have is the Dolmenwood campaign setting. Dolmenwood is a weird fairytale setting describing monsters, factions, myths, and adventures in a creepy, sprawling forest crisscrossed by ley lines, dotted with standing stones, and riddled with fungus. Dolmenwood is a nexus of various magical energies, including paths and doorways to the kingdoms of Fairy. A number of different factions are attracted to the magic of the place, so the forest has become the arcane battleground of witches, wizards, demi-gods, and fairy lords. The setting is heavily inspired by British folklore and fairytale, with a healthy dose of the psychedelic and weird.

Once everything with the Old-School Essentials Kickstarter is wrapped up, I’ll be launching full on into finishing up the writing of the complete campaign guide to Dolmenwood. This will be an all-in-one book containing everything a DM needs to run adventures and campaigns in Dolmenwood. It will come in B/X and D&D 5e flavours. The plan is to Kickstart the Dolmenwood Campaign Book early next year (2020).

TR: What is the one project you would love to work on?

G: It’s hard to pick one, as I have so many dreams of big projects I’d love to find the time to work on!

But one that comes to mind right away: I’ve been dreaming for a long time of writing, playing, and publishing a megadungeon of my own. I think I could really do the form justice, with the focus on weird, non-standard monsters and treasures and on writing and formatting that makes the book super easy to use without prep. Megadungeons are enormous projects, though, so I’m not sure when I’d ever be able to find the time to work on one! We’ll see…

TR: Anything else to add?

G: If anyone wants to chat further about Old-School Essentials, Dolmenwood, or old-school gaming in general, we have thriving communities on MeWe and Discord. Come and join us! https://mewe.com/join/necrotic_gnome / https://discord.gg/YprM5nq

And there you have it folks! For more information on the games they make head over to https://necroticgnome.com/ and get ready to go on a grand adventure.